2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:1-8 Part 6

That John the Baptist is a mysterious, compelling, and troubling figure is evident in the surprising range of artistic representations this text has evoked. Some emphasize his wildness in ragged figures like Donatello's statue that stands in the cathedral in Siena, thin, spare, speaking of an urgency that surpasses every earthly appetite. Some emphasize his prophetic role, like the figure in Gruenewald's Isenheim altarpiece1 whose long, bony finger points conspicuously toward the cross. Some, like Leonardo's youthful St. John who peers mysteriously out from a dark background, look appealing, wise, and a little secretive, as though they bear a message that can't be wholly told.2

The popular gospel movies of the sixties, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, both present John the Baptist as countercultural, which he was, a man conscious of the larger implications of community life, someone discerning and quick-minded who knew Jesus intuitively and took risks. These figures serve to raise the question why we may need those who speak from the margins, who dare to be eccentric and outspoken and to resist cultural norms. That there are political consequences for such behavior is evident in the biblical story; John was imprisoned and beheaded. That such risks and vulnerability are spiritually necessary for the building of the kingdom is also evident.

Renaissance art provides us with numerous images of St. John the Baptist as a child. Raphael's series of lovely Madonnas—the "Madonna del Cardellino," the "Madonna of the Meadow," and "Madonna with the Infant Christ and the Infant St. John" or "La Belle Jardinière"—provide three distinct ideas about the relationship between Jesus and his cousin.3 In the first, Mary gazes down at John, a toddler already clothed in animal skins, her arm protectively around him. In her other hand she holds a book. The slightly younger Jesus stands supported between her knees. John, smiling, holds a little wild bird out toward Jesus who extends his right hand over it, as if in blessing. The Christ child's expression, like his mother's, is soberer than his cousin's; he gazes directly into John's eyes, but seems to be thinking of other things. There is no infant laughter in him, but the suggestion of knowledge beyond his years.

In the second, the same three figures, again seated in a pastoral landscape, are similarly positioned, but here John kneels by Mary's side, meeting Jesus' gaze as he extends a staff-like cross toward the younger child who grasps it, one finger pointing upward on the crossbar. The children seem to be exchanging a knowing look here, and Mary again looks on peacefully, but soberly, as if pondering something beyond the child's play of two chubby little boys.

"La Belle Jardinière" suggests a very different relationship between the two children. Here again Mary is seated in the open countryside. An anachronistic church in the background suggests the timelessness of the moment. A closed book rests on her arm, but her attention is entirely turned to Jesus who stands at her knee, one arm resting in her hand, right hand resting familiarly on her knee. He gazes up at her expectantly, as if waiting to hear what she has to say to him. John kneels near him by Mary's side, directing an expectant gaze toward his little cousin. The faces of all three figures convey awareness, but each seems aware of something different. Mary's intent gaze seems, despite its tenderness, to suggest something of the weight of responsibility that lies in her hands. Jesus' open face and outstretched arm suggests an attitude of complete trust and readiness. John seems rapt in devotion. One chubby leg is poised as though ready to spring him to his feet and off into the wilderness to begin carrying out his assigned work. He is the most active figure in the reposeful scene. Clothed again in his signature skins and carrying a long cross on his shoulder, he seems to have come into the world fully equipped and directed toward his mission. The widely debated question of how much Jesus knew about his identity and mission is addressed differently in each of these paintings and in many others—that time and again return to the subject of the divine child and the child who leapt in the womb, recognizing the Lord before anyone else, with an awareness that seems in these many pictorial accounts, never to have left him.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

Santa Barbara, CA